What would a young Napoleon have done to get his hands on magical weapons?
That’s essentially the question Django Wexler explores in his flintlock fantasy The Thousand Names. But he uses an alternate universe to run his literary simulation.
The story is set in Khandar, an arid colony of the Vordanai empire. A local religious movement known as the Redemption has overthrown the Khandarai prince and chased the Vordanai garrison from the capital. Things look grim for the evicted troops until an eccentric and uncommonly intelligent colonel arrives with orders to crush the rebellion. More covertly, he’s also seeking a Khandarai artifact imbued with arcane power.
The early parts of the novel are light on magic, though. Much of the book reads like military fiction, focusing on the campaign the Vordanai wage against the acolytes and allies of the Redemption. Muskets figure heavily into the fighting, as do cannon, cavalry, and Napoleonic-era infantry formations. At times, I felt as if I were revisiting one of Bernard Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe novels. (Not a bad thing!)
I also enjoyed the protagonists. Wexler primarily tells the story through the eyes of two Vordanai officers, one a senior captain and the other a “ranker” on the climb. They’re both easy to root for. So are the majority of the supporting characters.
But I wish we’d gotten more of the Khandarai perspective.
In the book’s acknowledgments, Wexler writes that, “This is not, in any sense, a historical novel. At best it was inspired by history, in the loosest Hollywood sense of the word.” The Thousand Name’s imperial dynamics feel like more than a loose parallel to reality, however. The Vordanai, no matter how sympathetically drawn, are ultimately pale-skinned invaders; the indigenous Khandarai have darker complexions, ranging in hue from “pale ash” to “brown-black.” Given that the colonel is modeled after Napoleon and possesses similar military genius, it makes sense that the Vordanai often have a tactical advantage. Yet some of their victories made me wince; I didn’t always appreciate being expected to cheer for the occupying force. Replacing one of the Vordanai officers with a Khandarai point of view might have complicated the reader’s loyalties in more compelling ways.
To be fair, we do get a few chapters featuring native characters. Wexler also generally depicts the Khandarai as a complex people composed of multiple subcultures and factions. And the Vordanai don’t come off as morally superior; there are plenty of bad apples serving under (and opposing) the colonel. The book isn’t an apology for colonialism—I’d still recommend The Thousand Names to anyone who enjoys historical fantasy with a martial bent.
But the story could have been even better if it were more balanced.